Rising through ballet ranks

Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers Kate Kadow and Wan Bin Yuan in Divertimento No 15. Photo: Stephen A'Court
Royal New Zealand Ballet dancers Kate Kadow and Wan Bin Yuan in Divertimento No 15. Photo: Stephen A'Court
Francia Russell came half-way around the world to help out a former student and dancer. The American former ballet dancer and stager tells Rebecca Fox about rising through the ranks in ballet.

Influential Russian-American ballet choreographer George Balanchine picked Francia Russell out of the crowd at just 17 years old.

Frances Russell. Photo: Supplied
Frances Russell. Photo: Supplied
Little did she know then just how much the founder of the New York City Ballet's actions would impact on her career - that she would end up travelling the world staging Balanchine's works.

That has included coming to New Zealand to help stage Balanchine's Divertimento No 15 for the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

Sitting in a RNZB rehearsal studio, the diminutive stager, recalls those heady days just three weeks after arriving at what was then the American Ballet Company, after graduating high school, when Balanchine asked ''who is that girl'' and gave her a contract.

''I was totally in awe.

''I was thrown in at the deep end. I'd never done anything remotely resembling the immersion - learning 30 ballets in two weeks.

''It was mind-boggling. Really frightening but exhilarating as well.''

Then she was asked to dance in Balanchine's new work Divertimento No 15 at the Mozart Festival held at the American Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford, Connecticut, in 1956.

''It was a big honour as the newbie. It was my first experience of watching him create a whole ballet.''

That then led to a tour of Europe with the company and the news Balanchine's wife who was adored by the dancers had succumbed to polio and was in an iron lung.

''We didn't see Balanchine for a year after that.''

Russell's concern was tempered with relief for her parents as she had a polio vaccination before her tour - a new offering back then.

When Balanchine returned he used Russell as his ''guinea pig'' when developing new dances because she was musical and understood his passion for the music.

But something was missing for Russell, so at 23 years old she headed off to college to study.

It was not long before Balanchine came calling again - with a hard-to-resist offer of ballet mistress.

''He saw that I had that ability. It was his idea not mine. At 25 I had no previous experience. He tried to lure me back to dancing; if someone is out you have to go in.''

In the meantime she had met her future husband Kent Stowell who also danced with the New York City Ballet - he was the big draw.

While with the New York City Ballet, she and Stowell danced Divertimento No. 15 many times, under the watch-full eye of Balanchine.

She became one of the first ballet masters chosen by Balanchine to stage his works.

Russell has staged more than 100 productions of Balanchine ballets throughout North America and Europe.

In 1987, she staged the first Balanchine ballet in the People's Republic of China for the Shanghai Ballet, and in 1988-89, she staged the historic first authorised performance of Balanchine's work in his homeland for the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg.

''He sent me out. It was terrifying in those days. There was no such thing as films to consult so I took lots and lots of notes - I was working a hundred hours a day too. I tried writing down ballets every waking moment. I had to know everybody's part. It was trial by fire.

''Even things I know I know. You can't count on them being there 10 years later.''

She still gets those notebooks out when staging a work, although she admits it is so much easier now there are films to refer to.

''I've staged so many ballets for Pacific Northwest and have films of all of those.''

Balanchine died in 1983 and so much has changed since then, she said.

She remembers Balanchine telling her ''Francia you have to know this. One day you will be the only person who knows how this fits the music. So I always tell the dancers so they will remember''.

Balanchine often said he explored and extended the works of his predecessors, she said. It was something she believed many young choreographers of today should also do rather than saying ''I'm here now and throwing it out''.

''Do something different but based on what has gone before.''

After working with many of the European ballet companies, the pair moved to Germany in the late 1960s when Stowell was appointed ballet master and choreographer of Frankfurt Ballet, and was then named, with Russell, co-artistic director of the company in 1975.

They stayed in Germany for seven years before eventually settling in Seattle after being appointed artistic directors of the struggling Pacific Northwest Ballet.

It enabled the pair to get some work-life balance and raise their three sons in one place.

''I still staged his ballets but not the same way as I did before as I had too much to do in Seattle and the three boys couldn't raise themselves.''

Russell went on to become a director of Pacific Northwest Ballet School, a position she held until her retirement in June 2005.

''Kent and I wanted to create a company and school that had everything we would have wanted as students and then dancers.''

During the couple's time at Northwest they made many changes. One which Russell is particularly proud of was establishing good conditions and benefits for dancers and teachers.

''We wanted our artistic staff, our teachers, dancers, to be recognised as respected professionals.''

They sought funding from a variety of sources and in the 1980s managed to get funding to pay their teachers a salary year-round; something that has since fallen by the wayside due to funding cuts.

She believed the students needed a complete education, taking a holistic approach to teaching. They provided nutritionists, psychologists, and dancers also did cross-training, weight training, plus dance history and music history.

''We were the first school in America to incorporate all that into a dance education. People paid attention and almost all of that is standard now.''

Community outreach also became an important role for the company, something that had not featured in the past.

While it was a male-dominated profession at that level, the only time she really felt it was at the start of her time at Northwest Pacific when her husband was the artistic director.

''They treated me a bit like Kent's wife, as though I hadn't done the work he had done, but in two years' time I was promoted to co-artistic director.''

Working so closely with her husband for so many years worked well for the couple.

''It was always good. We have completely different strengths and weaknesses. So we balance each other really well.''

But they were like any dance couple.

''If I was unhappy, we were both unhappy, as is the case with couples in dance.''

She has received many awards for her contribution to dance including an honorary degree.

The pair came out to New Zealand together to help new RNZB artistic director Patricia Barker who is a former student and dancer of theirs. Barker has danced Divertimento under Russell.

''We've known her very well for a long, long time. We have worked together and are friends.''

So she could not turn down Barker when she requested Russell come out to stage this work.

''It's very delicate; it's just the way the movements and the music is linked, the way they are married. It's just Balanchine and Mozart; you can't beat a collaboration of two more beautiful artists.''

She was impressed by the New Zealand dancers' co-operation and the musicians' dedication to getting it right.

Once this job is finished, the pair are heading home to spend time with their grandchildren and visit one of their sons who is the associate director of the National Ballet of Canada.

To See
Dancing with Mozart is performed by the Royal New Zealand Ballet at the Regent Theatre, Dunedin, on Saturday at 7.30pm.

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